The Council of Guardians announced on May 25th the names of the candidates considered suitable to participate in the presidential elections of June 18th, arousing surprise and a fair share of perplexities.
A total of seven candidates has been approved in what the Council considers a legitimate, credible list, capable of representing all the main political currents in the country. On the contrary, however, it clearly appears that the choice was expressed by a rigid and imperative line aimed at favoring only one of the candidates, Ebrahim Raisi, preventing any real form of competition and weighing heavily on the credibility of the next electoral round.
Nonetheless, the pre-electoral political debate has unexpectedly been animated by a centrist candidate, Abdolnasr Hemmati, whose ability to generate a real confrontation between the parties could pave the way for potentially unexpected results.
Raisi is the favorite, but Hemmati challenges him in the debates
There are seven candidates who have obtained the Council of Guardians’ approval to run for the June 18th presidential elections: Ebrahim Raisi, Mohsen Rezaei, Saeed Jalili, Ali Reza Zakani, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and Abdolnasr Hemmati. Numerous – as always, after all – are the excluded candidates, among which some excellent names of the Iranian political scene emerge, including Eshaq Jahangiri – Rohani’s reformist Vice President – and Ali Larijani – a more traditional conservative and former president of the Parliament – as well as all the candidates who were de facto manifestations of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) were excluded from participating in the elections, especially the former General and former Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan, the young former General Saeed Mohammad and Parviz Fattah, President of the Bonyad Mostazafan.
The selection process has ignited a lot of criticism in the country, especially within the conservative circle, perhaps penalized more than the reformist one: Ebrahim Raisi himself said he was perplexed by the Council of Guardians’ decision. He objected that the disqualification of so many candidates may not make the elections really competitive, encouraging desertion from the polls.
The common feeling, in Iran as well as abroad, is that of a choice – not entirely clear nor linear – to "protect” Ebrahim Raisi’s electoral victory by decision of the univocal will of the Supreme Leader and of the so-called "Pasdaran system". An interpretation that is certainly correct, but which requires further analysis.
In spite of Western stereotypes about the monolithic nature of Iran, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, does not have the capacity nor the possibility to make autonomous decisions vis-à-vis the more general political, military, and economic context of the Islamic Republic. Every decision is the product of a complex mediation, of a confidence-building process that is laboriously woven by the Leader and his institutional apparatus – the Office of the Leader, which is in fact an institution in its own – in the search for a compromise with the most different and often conflicting components of Iran’s political, economic, and military system. The Sepah-e Pasdaran, understood as a military organization and an economic complex, had already expressed prior to the pronouncement of the Council of Guardians its dissent towards the candidates coming directly from its ranks, with the exception of Mohsen Rezai, who has been outside the structure's staff for several years now.
The great unknown of these elections - and above all the great fear of the conservative political system - was until the very end represented by the possibility of Javad Zarif’s candidacy, popular and esteemed Foreign Minister of the Rohani government, who could have probably catalyzed the youth vote.
Another element of great importance, systematically avoided in the public narrative but present everywhere in the informal debate as the stone guest par excellence of the elections, is the question of the succession to Ali Khamenei. In view of his age, but also of the ever-present rumors around the Leader's health conditions, the political debate surrounding the 2021 presidential elections has been largely built upon the perspective of a “bridge phase”, that is, capable of leading the Islamic Republic across the generational transition that will mark the revolutionary component’s definitive exit from the political scene.
In this context, and with the opportunity of an understanding with the United States on the resumption of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) now appearing within reach, the collective interest of Iranian politics seems to have found a point of convergence in the support of Ebrahim Raisi. This convergence, moreover, seems to express a double function. On the one hand, in fact, it serves the purpose of reinforcing a presidential choice that guarantees the conservative component a strong and secure candidate, fully tuned – at least today – in to the context he belongs to. On the other hand, it also represents an opportunity to strengthen the political and institutional credibility of the person who – it is believed – could represent the most concrete choice for a possible succession to Ali Khamenei, facilitating the future process of selection by the Assembly of Experts.
As such, this double convergence of interests seems to have pushed the Leader and the Iranian political system to force the hand on the choices of the Council of Guardians, thus preventing, above all, the candidature of Ali Larijani, who could have represented an insidious diversion of the vote, increasing the risk of a dangerous and, in a certain way, embarrassing runoff.
At the same time, however, this unprecedented interference risks strongly delegitimizing the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi, provoking the collateral risk of low turnout at the polls, always strongly feared by the Leader as the most evident and unquestionable measure of popular disaffection towards the politics and institutions of the Islamic Republic.
While the pandemic emergency could be used as an explanation for a marked drop in the number of voters, in the perspective of a line of defense on the part of the institutions, the absence of real challengers against Raisi represents, on the contrary, a factor of de-legitimization for the presidential candidate. Ebrahim Raisi himself is well aware of this and has made no secret of his perplexity in relation to the choice of the Council of Guardians, hoping for a "broader participation" which quite a few have interpreted as an appeal to the Leader to intervene in order to have credible candidates readmitted.
This is currently a very remote hypothesis, but if a narrative of strong de-legitimization should strengthen over the next few days, among the many variables of this electoral round there could also be that of a voluntary withdrawal of Raisi himself, opening up new and much more complex scenarios.
At the same time, the televised political debates with the seven candidates have demonstrated their scarce political acumen, especially on the major issue of economic interest; ultimately increasing the disaffection of the Iranian electorate.
It was Abdolnasr Hemmati, in any case, who dominated the televised electoral debate, turning his name in just a few days from an unknown financial bureaucrat into Ebrahim Raisi’s sole true challenger.